Since its beginnings in the late 1940s, the U.S. police procedural genre has continued to bring together a variety of social issues with physical action. It is unabashedly a genre of car chases and gun battles and fistfights, but it is also imbued with values critical to the fabric of a society: justice, social order, law. More than any other TV genre, the police program brings into sharp relief the conflicts between individual freedom and social responsibility in a democratic society. Although the police are closely related to the private detective in their pursuit of criminals, they are ultimately an employee of the state, not a private individual, and are sworn "to protect and to serve." In theory, this means the police officer is expected to enforce society's laws and maintain order--unlike the private eye, who can be more flexible in his/her obedience to the rule of law. In practice, though, policing figures can also be disruptive forces--violating the letter of the law in order to enforce a "higher" moral code. As times change and ideology shifts, so does the police drama.

Although 1949's Stand By for Crime and Chicagoland Mystery Players provided television's first police detectives, neither was as influential as their long-running successor, Dragnet--which had two separate TV incarnations, from 1952 to 1959 and then from 1967 to 1970. Dragnet defined the genre during the 1950s. Jack Webb produced and starred as Sgt. Joe Friday, who doggedly worked his way through official police procedures. Dragnet drew its stories from California court cases and prided itself on presenting "just the facts," as Friday frequently reminded witnesses. Friday was an efficient bureaucrat with a gun and a badge, a proud maintainer of police procedure and society's rules and regulations. Producer Webb had such success with this formula that he returned to the police procedural program in the 1970s with Adam 12.

The police procedural strain dominated the genre during the 1950s, but its dry presentational style and endorsement of the status quo and the powers-that-be came under attack in the 1960s. Webb's programs seemed anachronistic and out of touch with the reality of many viewers during that turbulent decade. New issues, imagery, and character types revived the genre in programs such as Ironside and The Mod Squad.

Ironside, in contrast to the Webb programs, attempted to pour a liberal politics into the mold of the police drama. Ironside's team of crime-fighters cobbled together representatives of society's disenfranchised groups (women, African-Americans, and the young) under the guidance of a liberal patriarch, the wheelchair-bound Robert Ironside (Raymond Burr). Ironside was an outsider who understood the workings of police procedure, but chose not to function within it. Instead, he formed an alliance of sharply defined individuals outside the bounds of the police organization proper. Ironside did not challenge the status quo, but neither did it fully endorse it.

In The Mod Squad, the policing characters were drawn from Hollywood's vision of 1960s counterculture: "one white, one black, one blond," the advertising promised. Although actual members of the counterculture spurned the program as fake and inaccurate, The Mod Squad illustrated how policing figures can adopt an anti-social patina, how they can come to resemble the rebellious and anarchic forces they are supposed to contain.

The 1970s saw a flood of police programs--some 42 premiered during the decade--and their protagonists became increasingly individualistic and quirky. They came closer and closer to the alienated position of the private detective, and moved farther and farther from the Dragnet-style police procedural. The title figures of McCloud, Columbo, and Kojak were police detectives marked as much by personal idiosyncrasies as concerns with proper procedure or law enforcement effectiveness. McCloud (Dennis Weaver) was a deputy from New Mexico who brought Western "justice" to the streets of Manhattan. Columbo (Peter Falk) dressed in a crumpled raincoat and feigned lethargy as he lured suspects into a false sense of confidence. And Kojak (Telly Savalas) was as well known for his bald head and constant lollipop sucking as for problem-solving.

The 1970s inclination toward offbeat police officers peaked in detectives that spent so much time undercover--and masqueraded so effectively as criminals--that the distinction between police and criminals became less and less clear. Toma (a ratings success even though it lasted just one season) and Baretta led the way in this regard, drawing their inspiration from Serpico--a popular Peter Maas book that eventually evolved into a film and a low-rated TV series. These unorthodox cops bucked the police rule book and lived unconventional lives, but, ultimately, they existed on a higher moral plain than the regular police officer.

The genre was also fortified in the 1970s through other strategies: incorporating a medical discourse (Quincy, M.E.), setting policemen astride motorcycles (CHiPs--a term, incidentally, which was fabricated by the program and is not used by the California Highway Patrol), and casting younger, hipper actors (Starsky and Hutch).

By the 1980s, the police drama was a well established genre, possibly in danger of stagnation from the glut of programs broadcast during the previous decade. With remarkable resiliency, however, it continued to evolve through a series of programs that took its basic conventions and thoroughly reworked them. Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, and Miami Vice were very different programs, but each of them was seen as an iconoclastic, rule-breaking police program.

Police programs have always invoked realism and claimed authenticity, as was apparent in the genre's archetype, Dragnet, but there are different forms of realism and Hill Street Blues altered the understanding of realism that had prevailed. Among its innovations were documentary film techniques (such as the hand-held camera), fragmented and disjointed narrative structure (actions kept happening without conventional motivation and/or explanation), and morally ambiguous characterizations (mixing good and evil in a single individual). Hill Street Blues also altered the usually all-white, usually all-male composition of the police force by including women and minorities as central figures--a trend which had begun in the 1970s.

Cagney and Lacey took the inclusion of women characters and women's concerns much further than Hill Street Blues or Ironside. Indeed, it challenged the genre's patriarchal underpinnings in fundamental, unprecedented ways. There had been women-centered police programs as early as 1974's Get Christie Love and Police Woman, but these programs were more concerned with exploiting Teresa Graves's or Angie Dickenson's sexual desirability than presenting a feminist agenda. Cagney and Lacey, in contrast, confronted women's issues that the genre had previously ignored: breast cancer, abortion, birth control, rape (particularly acquaintance rape), and spousal abuse.

That Cagney and Lacey disrupted the male-dominated genre is evidenced by the battles that had to be fought to keep it on the air. In the most notorious incident, the role of detective Christine Cagney was recast after the first, low-rated season because, according to an unnamed CBS executive quoted in TV Guide, "The American public doesn't respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling manhole covers peoplehole covers. . . . We perceived them [actors Tyne Daley and Meg Foster] as dykes." Consequently, a more conventionally feminine actor (Sharon Gless) assumed the Cagney role. (This was actually the third actor to play the part; Loretta Swit was Cagney in the made-for-TV movie version.) Despite this ideological backpedaling, Cagney and Lacey went on to establish itself as one of the most progressively feminist programs on television.

The third 1980s police program to unsettle the conventions of the genre was Miami Vice. This immensely popular show featured undercover cops who were so far "under" that they were almost indistinguishable from the criminals--quite a far cry from Sgt. Friday. In Miami Vice, good and evil folded back over one another in impenetrable layers of disguise and duplicity. James "Sonny" Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo "Rico" Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas)usually found their way out of the urban jungle they patrolled, but not always. In one season, Crockett was stricken with amnesia and actually believed himself to be a hoodlum. In any event, Crockett and Tubbs frequently ran across corrupt public officials. The clearly demarcated moral universe of Dragnet had become hopelessly ambiguous.

However, moral ambiguity was not entirely new to the genre. This territory was frequently traveled by previous programs such as Baretta. What was truly innovative in Miami Vice was the style of its sound and image--rather than its themes. Miami Vice borrowed its imagery from the film noir: high contrast, imbalanced lighting, dissymmetrical compositions, extreme low and high camera angles, foreground obstructions, black-and-white set design, and so on. These images were often edited together into elusive, allusive, music-video-style segments incorporating music by Tina Turner, Glenn Frey, Suicidal Tendencies, and many others. This led some critics to nickname the show, "MTV cops."

Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice paved the way for further experimentation with the genre. Stephen Bochco, the producer of Hill Street Blues, began the 1990s with Cop Rock--a bold, but ultimately failed, effort to blend the police program with the musical. Unlike Miami Vice's musical segments which drew upon music video, Cop Rock's episodes more resembled West Side Story or an operetta--as police officers, criminals, and attorneys sang about life on the streets. It only lasted three months, but it stands as one of the most unconventional programs within the genre.



Police Woman

Hawaii 5-0

Bochco fared better in more familiar surroundings when he developed NYPD Blue, a program about homicide detectives that resembled Hill Street Blues in its serialized, unstable narrative development and cinema verite, visual style. Although the program raised some controversy in its use of partial nudity and more flavorful language than was common on television at the time, it actually broke little new ground as far as the genre's conventions were considered. More unconventional in its narrative structure was Law & Order, in which the program was strictly divided between the first and second halves. In the former, the police investigated a crime and in the latter, the district attorney's office prosecuted that crime. Like NYPD Blue, Law & Order was set in New York City and it presented its urban environment through conventions of "realism" that evolved from Hill Street Blues.

The legacy of Miami Vice's visual stylization was most apparent in Homicide: Life on the Streets, which may well be the most stylized police drama of the 1990s. Homicide broke many of television's most sacred rules of editing and narrative continuity. Jump cuts were numerous as the program came to resemble a French New Wave film from the 1960s. Wild camera movements and unpredictable shifts in narrative development marked it as one of the most unconventional programs in the genre.

One other recent, anomalous police program was Picket Fences. Although many of the central characters were police officers (thus possibly qualifying it for the genre), Picket Fences did not adhere to the central police program convention of an urban environment. Instead, the program was set in a small town, which consequently defused many of the pressures of city life. Moreover, Picket Fences dealt with many topics previously unknown to the genre (such as spontaneous combustion of a human being). It seems unlikely, however, that this program will have much impact on the genre.

More liable to influence the genre was the documentary program, COPS, produced by John Langley. COPS presented hand-held, videotape footage of actual police officers apprehending criminal perpetrators. There was no host introducing this footage and the only explanation of what was happening was provided by the participants themselves (principally, the police men and women). In a sense, COPS was merely the logical extension of Hill Street Blues' shooting style and disjointed narratives--and was much cheaper to produce.

-Jeremy G. Butler


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O'Connor, John J. "When Fiction is More Real Than 'Reality.'" New York Times, 7 February 1993.

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See also Cagney and Lacey; Columbo; Dixon of Dock Green; Dragnet; Homicide; Inspector Morse; La Plante, Lynda; Miami Vice; Naked City; NBC Mystery Movie; NYPD Blue; Police Story; Prime Suspect; Starsky and Hutch; Sweeny, The; Untouchables, The; Webb, Jack; Z Cars